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UN report has Israeli officers concerned they could be arrested abroad

TEL AVIV — Israel Defense Forces has been meeting representatives from Western countries to prevent the arrest or prosecution of officers linked to the war against the Hamas regime in January 2009.   

Israel's military has been concerned that its officers could be arrested abroad on charges of war crimes.

Officials said the European Union could detain visiting Israeli officers in wake of a United Nations report that accused the military of war crimes in the Gaza Strip.

"We are facing a very serious situation that we want to avoid," an official said.

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Already, one Israeli officer has been identified as a target of international prosecution, Middle East Newsline reported. A senior prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague identified Lt. Col. David Benjamin, who is also a South African national, as a suspected war criminal in connection with his work at the Military Advocate General's international law department, which helped determine Hamas and other targets in the Gaza Strip.

"Lt. Col. David Benjamin is a respected officer who served for many years in legal positions in the IDF, and assisted the military in managing its activities in accordance with the rules of international law," an Israeli military statement said.

Officials said the military has urged its EU counterparts to oppose arrest warrants for Israeli officers. They said EU militaries were also asked to inform Israel of any warrants before the arrival of military delegations from the Jewish state.

Over the last three years, Israeli officers have avoided several attempts to be summoned to European courts on charges of war crimes. Officials said the threat of prosecution, initiated by Muslim and pro-Palestinian groups, has limited visits by Israeli field officers.

In mid-September, a report by UN special envoy Richard Goldstone recommended that ICC examine the prospect of arrest warrants against Israeli officers in the 23-day war against Hamas. The Goldstone report accused Israel of targeting civilians in Operation Cast Lead. Israel has not been a signatory the 2002 Rome Treaty, which established the court.

Since then, both Israeli commanders as well as senior officials have been under threat. In late September, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, threatened with a warrant on charges of war crimes, solicited the protection of British Prime Minister Gordon Brown before arriving for a brief visit to London.

Officials said the Israeli military has appealed to EU states not to issue arrest warrants before discussing the issue with the Jewish state. They said the Israeli military would cooperate in releasing details of the role of officers suspected by the UN of war crimes.

"The Goldstone Report seems to have created legitimacy to chase after us," said Israeli parliamentarian Nachman Shai, who has drafted a bill that would require the state to finance the legal battle against officers. "We need to be sure that the people who followed orders and served this country are safe and protected."

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